(Read the other parts of this series here.)
It was the smell that woke me. A putrid array of filth and decay assaulted my nostrils, so rancid that it was sticky and palpable. In a flash of groggy horror, I realized what was causing such a stench.
I had not brushed my teeth in days.
Pulling my head up from the hard metal table it had been resting on for who knows how long, I ran my tongue across my scuzzy teeth and surveyed my surroundings. I sat in a hard metal chair at a long metal table in a dingy room with no windows. A single steel door on the far side of the room broke up the yellowed walls that enclosed the place. I didn’t even have to touch anything to know that it was damp in here.
My head pounded without remorse. I tried to reach up to see if I had any gaping skull fractures, but found that I couldn’t. My hands were cuffed to the table, giving me barely six inches of clearance.
“Oh great,” I said aloud. “I’m in Hostel.”
The door swung inward, followed by three men. Fortunately none of them looked like torturers. Unfortunately, I actually recognized two of them and they were not much better.
A Sparkling Smile and More!
Fork, professional thug and violence aficionado, led the pack with his meaty presence. The man I did not recognize trailed close to him. He wore an ill fitting suit, his head down and fidgeting. Finally, with slow, deliberate steps came the last of them. A chill entered the room with him.
Warner Dawson moved with atomic precision. Every footfall was measured, calculated. Every blink of the eye and twitch of the wrist by design. He wore his black and gray pinstripe suit like a second skin. The man was symmetrical down to his pores. He smiled at me and I fought to control my bowel muscles. Dawson’s smile was perfect. More than perfect. His teeth were so blinding white that they made the mouth behind them seem dark and cavernous, a black maw in which no tongue could be detected. I found it increasingly difficult to avert my gaze.
The door swung shut behind them with a heavy clang.
Dawson set a black briefcase on the table. My mind went wild imaging all the horrors that might lie within. He gestured toward his companions, first to the diminutive man in the brown suit.
“Kevin, this is Allen Reynolds.”
Allen sat in one of two chairs available. He nodded but avoided eye contact.
Dawson said, “And I believe you have already met Mr. Fork.”
I glanced at the bulging mountain of flesh. Fork grinned and proudly waved his right arm at me. It was then that I finally got a good look at the thing sticking out of his wrist. He had lost his hand, you see, so in lieu of a robotic limb or something he seemed to have opted for a prosthetic far more befitting his namesake.
Oversized, triple pronged, and so sharp that it gave off sparkling glints of light like knives do in cartoons. It protruded straight out of his wrist, longer than his hand had been, in a spatial arrangement that would have been thoroughly inconvenient for anyone not in the murder-for-hire business. Its purpose as a weapon was evident.
Dawson sat down in the chair across the table from me, next to Allen. “All right, introductions aside, let’s get started. So nice to see you again, Mr. Harper. You have been well, I hope?”
I stared at him. “You’ve sent people to kill me, repeatedly. I’ve been shot at, punched, stabbed, burned out of my home, and generally frightened for months.” I bobbed my head toward Fork’s glowering form. “And then your prize stallion here knocks me unconscious and chains me up in this, uh, what is this, a basement? I just get the sense that this is a basement. Anyway, no, I have not been well!”
Dawson smile waned. He snapped his lips shut and the room dimmed. “I am sorry to hear that, Kevin. But I hold grudges of my own, you know.” He tapped his shoulder. “Hopefully we can work together to move past all that.”
My eyes narrowed. “Where’s Melanie? What have you done with her?”
Dawson glanced at Fork. “I do not know, actually. Which I believe means that she has finally gotten what she wanted.”
“Did you kill her?”
He shook his head. “Melanie chose to take the deal she had always been offered: your life for her own. The only difference now is that she managed to convince me that you are moderately more useful alive than dead.”
I sat back in my chair and let that sink in. Melanie had turned me over to these people. Just when I thought we had begun to build a life together, she pulled it all out from underneath me. Still, the last time I had seen these guys they were trying to kill me, so Melanie had clearly done something to change their minds. I glanced around the room and wondered if being kept alive would prove the preferable outcome.
Four Out of Five Recommend
I said, “So what do you want, exactly? Who are you even working for?”
“I have my fingers in many pies, Mr. Harper. Sometimes it is a secretive murder conglomerate, sometimes it is marketing. None of that pertains to you except for what we discuss at this table.”
I looked between the three of them. “And what are we discussing, exactly?”
Dawson smiled. “The future of your career.”
My jaw dropped. “Holy shit, am I being fired? Are you actually upper management? I heard those guys were strange, but this is way beyond what I anticipated.”
“Trust me, Kevin, our connection with The Double Thumb is solely through you. Which is why you are so important. For the time being, anyway.”
“Fine. Whatever. So what are you asking me to do?”
“We want you to do what you do best: write product reviews.”
I shimmied my shackles. “Then why all this? The kidnapping and the enhanced interrogation chamber? Why not just let me go about my business like I normally do?”
“Because we are looking for a little more from you than just your average output. We would like to explore certain shifts in the nature of your professional opinions.”
“Shifts? What do mean? My opinions are-” I stopped. “Wait. You want me to shill particular brands, don’t you? Some corporation pays you, and then you buy off or extort reputable product reviewers like me to hawk their product. That’s what this is?”
Dawson tilted his head. Normally a simple movement, for him it somehow looked wrong. Like his neck was held together by Tinkertoys. “You have some of that right, Mr. Harper. The general idea, I suppose. Though I assure you, the reasons behind our biases are solely our own.”
I shook my head so vigorously it felt like I was trying to twist it clean off. “I won’t do it. No way. You’re asking me to violate the most fundamental value of my profession!”
“This really isn’t that difficult. All we ask is that you find something pleasant with the occasional product of our choosing. For starters, let’s have a look at this.” He flipped the clasps on his briefcase. I couldn’t help but flinch away. His hands moved with such sharp precision. From inside he produced a small box, red with white lettering.
It was toothpaste. Colgate Advanced Whitening. Clean Mint flavor.
The Leading Brand
I glared at it. “You get that shit away from me.”
“All you have to do, Kevin, is review this product.”
He nodded. “Of course. And objectively, this toothpaste is much better than the competition. Objectively, it tastes great, freshens breath, eradicates cavities, and leaves teeth gleaming white. Objectively it is whatever effusive praise you choose to ascribe to it.”
I said, “Listen, this is crazy. My whole reputation is based on my unbiased opinions! I have a moral center to uphold!”
Fork scoffed so loudly it shook the table.
Warner Dawson leaned in. “Oh Kevin, you really are adorable. But you are not Walter Cronkite. You write consumer-bait articles for readers who care nothing about your misguided sense of integrity. Your opinion draws viewers in, which attracts advertisers, which is how you get paid. You are selling a product just as much as anyone else is.”
“But the readers trust me! If I get bought off like every other critic out there then what separates me from the pack? People will hate me if they find out I’m a corporate stooge! They’ll never read my reviews again. Don’t you see? Long run, your approach just alienates your potential customers.”
“You are assuming that the general public will be privy to any of this. I assure you they won’t.”
“I… but, it’s the internet. People find this stuff out.”
“We know how to control information, Mr. Harper.”
Fork swept his hand out wide. “Don’t know if you can tell from our moldy torture dungeon here, but we’re ’bout as far away from the public eye as you can get.”
I jerked my hands against the cuffs for the umpteenth time, as if this was the time I would break free of them. I tried to stare Dawson down, but he smiled again and I was forced to look away.
I said, “So what then, you’re just going to keep me locked away here while I do your bidding?”
“Oh goodness, no. We have no intentions of holding you captive indefinitely. When we feel confident that you see things the way we do, we will allow you to return to your typical routine. Albeit with a few minor directives here and there to keep you focused. It is our sincere hope that your cooperation comes to pass sooner rather than later.”
I shook my head. “I won’t do it. No matter what you do to me, I won’t let you dictate my professional opinions. It’s a matter of ethics. Plus, come on, Crest is clearly superior to Colgate.”
Fork smiled and closed his eyes, a look of almost rapturous contentment on his face. “I really, really hoped you’d say that.”
Unwanted Surface Stains
Warner Dawson frowned and sat back. “I had a feeling that you would take some convincing. Which is why I have called in my associates to sway you otherwise. Fork, Allen, go ahead please.”
“Yes sir.” They said it in unison, though there was a clear difference in tone between the two of them.
Fork moved forward, laying a hand on Allen’s shoulder. The nervous man stiffened. Fork grabbed him by his mop of tousled hair and pulled his head back. The spiky prongs protruding from the goon’s severed wrist lined right up with Allen’s face. Before I could muster so much as a horrified gasp, he plunged the fork straight into Allen’s eyeball.
Blood started spurting almost immediately. Allen screamed and flailed his head in reflex, all the while keeping his hands flat on the table. Fork dug in, worked his elbow into it like a plumber with a wrench. His arm moved around and around at every angle. Finally, with an almost cartoonish POP Allen’s eyeball came out of his socket, impaled on Fork’s fork. Meaty strings of sinew and optical nerve dangled off it. Fork cackled like a kid with a bug and waved the bloody glob of eyeball in my face.
He said, “You see this shit? You see what I can do to you?”
Allen collapsed, his trembling body draped over the table. Still, he kept his hands on the table. I stared transfixed at his gaping eye socket. It sank way further back into his head than I would expect it to, like a dark, bloody cave of horror. Huge sobs wracked him and even more blood squirted out of his face with each one.
Warner Dawson sat there for the entire ordeal, not even flinching when blood splattered onto his suit. Finally, mercifully, he said, “Well done, Allen. You may go now.”
At long last, Allen pulled his hands off the table. He put them over his face and a stream of red spurted between his fingers. Gurgling, he said, “Thank you sir!” and staggered out of the room. The door slammed shut behind him, heavy as ever.
A trickle of blood ran across the table and dripped onto my lap. Fork stepped up to me and reached out with the eyeball-kabab. I leaned as far away from the bloody, sharp blade as I could, but it was no use. Fork plopped the eyeball onto my shoulder. He stuck his thumb on top of it and held it in place while he pulled the fork out of it. Like he was getting a marshmallow off the skewer and onto a s’more. He stepped away and the eyeball remained, perched on my shoulder and staring straight at me.
I said, “Oh dude, what the fuck.”
A Resounding Endorsement
Warner Dawson let out a slight cough. “As you can see, Kevin, this plan of action has a lot invested into it. Not the least of which are Mr. Allen’s insurance premiums. If we continue down this road of disagreement, things could become far more costly for those involved. For your own sake, I urge your cooperation.”
I have never considered myself a brave person. As a kid, I let my sister take the blame for everything. I always shied away from fights in school. I’ll hide under my desk to avoid conflict in the workplace. And now, faced with actual brutal danger, I was not about to create any waves.
“Fine,” I said. “Holy shit, fine. I’ll write whatever you want me to write. You want me to tell people that Colgate freshens breath and cures cancer? Done. I’ll sell any brand or product you want. I’ll hawk Geico. I’ll deny the harmful effects of Marlboro cigarettes. I will literally suck Ronald McDonald’s penis if that’s what you want!”
Warner Dawson and Fork exchanged a small look.
Dawson stood. “Unfortunately, Mr. Harper, due to your earlier misgivings, I am going to have to ensure that you can be trusted. In order to do that, Mr. Fork here will need to do some evaluations and re-alignment before we can be certain that you are on the same team as us.”
“Wait, what?” I looked back and forth between Dawson and Fork, who was practically bouncing with glee.
Warner Dawson collected his briefcase, pushed the chair in, and walked to the door. He pulled open the door and looked back one last time. “See you later, Kevin. I do look forward to working with you again, once you are more open to suggestion.”
And then he was gone, leaving me alone in the room with the stab-happy mammoth of a man. When the door clanged shut this time it was the most ominous sound of all.
Fork stepped toward me, standing so close his gargantuan frame took up my entire vision. He said, “Oh poor, stupid Kevin. This has been a long time coming, you know. And now it’s just you and me. No Melanie to swoop in and shoot my hand off to save you. Now it’s just you and Fork.”
He grabbed me by the front of my shirt and held me in place. I struggled against the cuffs but to no avail. I wasn’t going anywhere. He grinned and drew back his triple-pronged arm.
I screamed before the fork even hit me. I would not stop for a long, long time.
Colgate Advanced Whitening toothpaste is the greatest, best tasting toothpaste in the history of toothpaste. When I have a son, I am going to name him John Colgate Advanced Whitening Toothpaste Harper, in honor of my late father and also Colgate Advanced Whitening Toothpaste. Buy it. Buy it all.